Experiment Log No. 12 – Write 1000 words a day
In this experiment, I commit to writing every day. My current writing habit is to fulfill my self-imposed deadline by way of starting as late as possible. Usually I only write on two days any given week. The purpose of this experiment is to become a daily writer by observing a quota of 1000 words every single day. I’ll update this log every few days or as I have new insights and discoveries about it.
The Experiment Log
Day 1 – 1/4/2012
It’s 6 pm and I just finished my writing now. Rookie mistake, waiting until late in the day like that. I did have a crucial task to do in the morning, and a commitment in the afternoon, so looking at it from the morning, it seemed reasonable to leave my writing for the afternoon.
Of course, I’m a master procrastinator and I know what happens when I depend on doing it later. I dread it and scrounge for any excuse to postpone it. Of course, there isn’t one now, but the resistance was still unbelievable. I did sit down but I really wanted to get it over with. I wasn’t really concerned about writing something good. I did end up with usable material but I think the quality would have been better if I had done it in the morning. Tomorrow it’s going to be the first thing I do. I expect it to feel great, having it under my belt by 10am.
Day 6 – 1/9/2012
I dropped the ball on Friday and Saturday. Two dubious, conflicting beliefs seem to allowed me to do that: 1) that there’s no reason I can’t do it later in the day, and 2) that once it’s late in the day, it’s not worth bothering because I’ll only be writing to fulfill my quota, and not to write something worth writing.
For the first one, while there’s no reason I can’t do it later in the day, I have every reason to do it earlier. Friday and Saturday I had commitments in the morning, and no real plan for when to sit myself down after they were over with. It’s amazing to see how I resist this, even when I have tons of time to do it. I really am scared of writing.
But the other days have been strong and every time I discover that I do eventually get on a roll, despite my fears of it being like pulling teeth for hours.
Day 11 – 1/15/12
So I missed two of the first five days, and now three of the last six. Actually one of those days I topped out around 700 words, so 4 of the last 6. Fairly disastrous.
As a commenter suggested yesterday — and whom happens to work as a writing coach — 1000 words is a lot. I somehow didn’t quite realize how much it is. A typical 1,500-word post takes me six to seven hours in two long sessions, and I normally do one a week. So I have been trying to do two thirds of that on a daily basis, and it’s too much. I don’t even want to start. So I haven’t been.
Quite often I’d be in the middle of writing, see that two hours have gone by, and I’ve just cracked 500. That’s an awful feeling and it’s about when I stop believing I’m going to do it.
And after missing a few days, my vision of 30 straight days is shot full of holes, so there’s really no goal to keep me chugging on through the discouraging moments. Even “winning out” — reaching my goal every day from here on in — is still a loss and I can’t get excited about aiming for it. Combine that deflated excitement with infuriating laptop problems, and the missed days added up pretty quickly.
One thousand words is a huge chunk, and only one or two of the successful sessions went smoothly. The others eventually ground to a plodding, teeth-pulling pace, and were quite painful to finish. Normally, I would take a break then, when it started to get awful. But I had committed to 1000 words so I kept at it, and did finish sometimes, but it made the prospect of doing it again the next day rather nauseating.
There’s another interesting side-effect. When I began to have trouble, someone suggested I not worry about any particular writing assignment, but just write something. Even a little fiction vignette that I’ll never publish here. So I did, and the result has been that I’m now even more apt to avoid the most important writing task of all: my weekly article.
I need to remind myself of the whole point of the experiment –I want to get used to writing every day. I want to wear down the psychological resistance I have to sitting down to write, and I figure I can only do that by sitting down more often. My standard of 1000 words is too high, and has only increased my trepidation about sitting down to write.
On top of the difficulty I was already having, I hadn’t given much thought about how I expect to get the writing done while I’m traveling. I only have four more full days to myself before I’m on the road, sleeping on other people’s couches with hundreds of sights to see. Some of those days will be spent almost entirely in transit and it’s unrealistic to think that I’ll find a way to pound out a huge chunk of writing on the plane.
So I’m cutting the standard in half. Five hundred words. That much, I can honestly expect of myself. I can write five hundred on a plane. I can write five hundred in a decent hour. I can do it in a few short sessions if I have to. Iteration is what makes hard things easy. Do it lots of times. So the more often I sit down to write — whether I end up doing a hundred or a thousand words — the less resistance there will be to it each time.
Despite the troubles though, I have learned some things beyond a doubt:
1) There are three basic time periods in a day I can begin writing: Before lunch, after lunch, and after dinner. Before lunch is invariably the easiest time period in which to write. After lunch is invariably worse than before lunch. After dinner is invariably worse than after lunch. It is always like that.
2) While I find it extremely difficult to begin writing late in the day, I have much less resistance to outlining a piece late in the day. And outlining a piece late in the day reduces the resistance I feel about sitting down to write it the next day.
In fact, those two lessons add up to an important general principle that seems to have escaped me until now. Work that requires the most mental energy is best done earliest. There are all kinds of unintimidating, undemanding work items that can be left until later if I just make sure I sit down to get started on the most demanding stuff at the best possible time, which is early.
From here, I think the smartest thing to do is adopt a more reasonable standard and begin the count again. Day one tomorrow, 500 words. The prospect is so much more inviting. This update is more than five hundred words, but I already did another 500 on another piece anyway. So my optimism is back, but an adjustment was totally necessary.
Day 12 – 1/16/12
Or day one, you could call it. Irony visited me today — on my first day of lowered standards, I write over fifteen hundred words after I got myself started. Or maybe it’s not ironic. A more achievable goal leads to less resistance, and more achieved as a result.
Day 21 – 1/25/12
Forgive the brief and sparse updates. I’m in full travel mode now and I forgot how that impacts internet time.
Did well until I left on Friday, then only did one of the next four days. I was a houseguest that whole time and had a city to explore, and it was even harder than I thought to stop everything and write. On top of that, New York City seems to make time go really fast. I did write today, and tomorrow I’m moving to a hotel.
But clearly my 500 words a day mark is totally doable under normal circumstances, and I’m encouraged about how much easier this will make my writing life once I’m accustomed to it.
I repeated the mistake of throwing myself into an experiment with no real plan of how I intend to handle the difficult parts. I decided to write every day just as I left to travel. Travel introduces a lot of hindrances to writing, and I’ve written about them before. Lack of privacy, general busyness, unpredictability. I thought I would power through that kind of resistance, but instead I began to resent having to write at all. And so part of me said “screw it” to my intention to write every day, and once a “do X every day” streak has a few holes in it, it’s not very compelling. If I’ve missed 5 of 9 days, what incentive is there to make it 6 of 10?
Many of my experiments have this backlash effect. What happens is this: I want to make myself do something, and so that thing becomes something I hate, something I feel is oppressing me. I hate when I must do things, and when I make something I want to do into something I have to do, I will do anything to avoid it. It becomes extremely unattractive to me.
I’m not sure what to do about that.
I guess at its root is the same problem I have in every area of life: I am compelled much more by what I don’t want than by what I do want. I always think primarily of downsides. I very easily forget the positive incentives behind the things I decide to do. The prospect of writing appears to me like something grinding and painful, when I have hundreds of thousands of published words under my belt. It’s done so much for my life, brought me so much joy and pride, and when I think of it all I think of is how it seems to corner me, how it limits my apparent freedom.
I’m going to keep a running list of sticking points, and decide what to do in those cases. For example: when I haven’t written a word by 9:30 (I usually get ready for bed at 10:00) how do I handle that? Maybe sitting down to write 100 words in that case is something I might actually get myself to do. Otherwise, I get that “fuck it” attitude, and the resentment builds. Or, if I’ve decided to begin writing by X time, and I dawdle until it’s 20 minutes later, I often feel like I’ve already let myself down and I use that as a rationale for delaying even more, which usually leads to a missed day.
NOTE: As I’m currently transitioning back to a 9-5 working environment, I have to rethink the premise of this experiment before I continue, otherwise there’s no real intention to take it seriously. I’ll announce it as a tack-on to an upcoming post.